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Lawyer Cheats DCYF
October 25, 2010 permalink
Rhode Island lawyer Milan T Azar has been caught overbilling DCYF for guardianship fees.
Johnston lawyer accused of professional misconduct
The state official who investigates alleged misconduct by lawyers has charged former Johnston Town Solicitor Milan T. Azar with violating three rules of professional conduct.
Azar is accused of deliberately overbilling the state Department of Children, Youth and Families for a guardianship, lying about it to the DCYF and to the chief disciplinary counsel of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, and improperly soliciting clients.
Azar has denied the bulk of the case. But in a formal answer to the charges, he admitted that he submitted to the DCYF the bills that are under scrutiny, and that he falsely blamed a helper for the initial submission.
The charge has been made by David D. Curtin, chief disciplinary counsel, and will be considered at a hearing by a three-member subcommittee of the Supreme Court’s disciplinary hearing board, composed of two lawyers and one public member who is not a lawyer. The hearing has not yet been scheduled.
Azar, according to Curtin’s complaint, represented a woman who was seeking to become guardian of three nieces and a nephew and whose legal expenses were eligible for reimbursement by the DCYF. Azar submitted four invoices for $2,000 apiece, or a total of $8,000, to the DCYF. But the department will only reimburse a guardian for reasonable non-recurring expenses — including lawyer’s fees — not to exceed $2,000 for an entire case, not per individual.
When the DCYF challenged the bill, Azar allegedly submitted revised invoices claiming that he had worked 63.25 hours on the case, including 14 hours in court. But the four guardianships had been heard all at once in a court proceeding that lasted no more than one-half hour, according to Curtin.
Subsequently, Azar sent an e-mail to the DCYF saying that his staff mistakenly had sent in a billing software template with placeholder figures rather than the correct figures. He submitted a revised bill for $8,000 that charged for 12 hours of court time.
After the DCYF complained to Curtin about the billings as well as Azar’s alleged improper solicitation of clients, Azar submitted another revised bill for $8,000 and insisted that it was accurate.
In a meeting with Curtin, Azar allegedly said that he had delegated the billing to his staff person, Tina Araujo. But Curtin said he learned that Araujo was an Azar client and not an employee.
After that meeting, Azar submitted still another revised bill, for more than $8,000. The new bill included a charge for five hours of post-guardianship work for each child, but Curtin alleged that there had been no post-guardianship work at that time.
In a letter in July, according to Curtin, Azar admitted that he had sent all the bills to the DCYF and that he tried to blame a helper because he was too proud to admit that he had mistakenly sent in the template.
Brian Peterson, associate director of the DCYF, notified the state police as well as Curtin about the alleged irregularities. State police Detective Lt. John Lemont said Tuesday that his agency will await the outcome of Curtin’s complaint and then, if appropriate, open a criminal investigation.
In other matters, Azar is alleged to have twice solicited guardianship business from people he was not allowed to solicit under the rules of professional conduct. Azar said in a reply to the DCYF complaint that he often approaches distressed people in the courthouse in an effort to help and to make sure they know that affordable legal representation is available.
Azar is charged with violating rules regarding fees, honesty and client solicitation.
“I am working with” Curtin “to try to get a just solution,” Azar said. Due to client confidentiality, he said, he does not want to publicly address the complaint in detail.
If the subcommittee concludes that discipline is warranted, by “clear and convincing evidence,” then it would recommend punishment to the full board, which in turn would make a recommendation to the Supreme Court, which would make a final determination.
Penalties could include a requirement of community service or pro bono legal service, public censure, suspension of his law license or disbarment. Restitution is an option, too, but it would not apply in this case, according to Curtin.
The complaint is at least the second time that Azar has been officially challenged regarding the amounts of his billings in Family Court. In 2007, then-Family Court Chief Judge Jeremiah S. Jeremiah Jr. referred Azar and another lawyer for criminal investigation by the state police regarding their state-paid work on behalf of indigent defendants.
Both lawyers were cleared of criminal misconduct and returned to good standing on a list of lawyers eligible to be appointed by the court to represent indigents. Jeremiah had billing practices tightened up.
Azar, 43, of Johnston, has a law practice consisting mostly of juvenile and family law such as guardianships. He was solicitor for former Johnston Mayor Louis Perrotta from 1995 to 1999, a former member of the Johnston Democratic Town Committee and a former legal counsel to the Rhode Island House of Representatives Labor Committee.
He has been an unsuccessful candidate a number of times for elective public office in Johnston, most recently in last month’s Democratic primary in Senate District 25.
Source: Providence Journal